When It Comes to Stereotypes, Words Matter

A few days ago I heard a young father telling his son—who was probably around 10 or 11—to “man up.” I started thinking about that phrase and wondered about all the gender stereotyping we do without even realizing it. Are expressions like “man up” harmless parts of our language or do they make a difference?

There’s no question that we use a lot of sex stereotypes in our everyday speech, most of the time without realizing it. Sometimes even the most gender-neutral phrases carry a strong stereotyped message. In most cases, the words are harmless, but other times they’re dangerous.

Take, for example, the word “behave” as it’s often used in schools. For decades, we’ve been telling boys in classrooms that they should “behave” properly: sit still and be quiet—behavior that’s strongly associated with girls. Unfortunately, that’s not the way boys learn best. Boys get the message that girls’ behavior is “right,” and that there’s something wrong with boys’ behavior. Parents are told that their sons have ADHD, and they rush out to find a doctor who will confirm that “diagnosis.” As a result, way too many boys are unnecessarily drugged.

And think about “big boys don’t cry,” another harmless-sounding phrase. But there’s a straight line between “big boys don’t cry” and men’s tendency to avoid going to a doctor until their symptoms become unbearable—an attitude that often leaves them permanently disabled or dead.

The most interesting part about sex-stereotyped language is how it makes boys and girls (and men and women) change their behavior to conform to the stereotypes. Boys and men are often told that they need to get in touch with their “feminine side.” Perhaps in response, there’s been an increase in the number of “metrosexuals,” straight men who take a greater-than-average interest in fashion, cosmetic surgery, and skincare—including wearing makeup. But it doesn’t end there. According to new research, men are even starting to talk like women, most notably raising the pitch of their voice at the end of sentences.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego compared how “uptalkers” change their intonation when they make a statement or ask a question. They recorded subjects in a number of situations, including providing directions from a map and describing clips from a sitcom. According to UCSD linguist Amanda Ritchart, all of the subjects—regardless of ethnic group, or sex—uptalked. But the uptick in pitch towards the end of a statement started later than it did at the end of a question. To many people's ears, the change in pitch makes uptalkers sound unsure, tentative, or insecure. Or feminine.

Okay, so what? The answer is that voice pitch—especially for men—is frequently associated with career advancement: the deeper the voice, the more money a man makes, the longer he’ll stay in his job, and the higher he’ll advance within his company, at least according to scientists at Duke University.

Women see that male behavior advances careers, and they’ve started acting more like men. Many, for example, are (probably subconsciously) lowering the pitch of their voices at work. And various studies have found that women are skipping the skirts, heels, and makeup and instead dressing in a more masculine way. Some working women believe that they need to hide their emotions and be more aggressive towards their direct reports and colleagues—just like those stereotypical “alpha males.”

Bottom line: the words we use—and the hidden meanings they convey—can do a lot of good or a lot of harm. So watch what you say.

5/11/2017 7:00:00 AM
Armin Brott
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Armin Brott is passionate about improving the health and wellbeing of men, at any age, and those who care about them. He’s the author of Blueprint for Men’s Health, Your Head: An Owner’s Manual, and numerous other books and articles on men’s health. Armin is on the Board of Advisors of Men’s Health Network, a DC-based no...
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